Demonstrating to Be Assessed

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly along this journey through the PLE, the practical classroom example is the class project, regardless of what form it takes. Class projects are a double-edged sword for teachers. On the one hand, many teachers spend years developing and refining project assignments to reflect the material they’re teaching, and the products they want to see result from the project. On the other, we’ve mistaken schools for factories, turning out perfect little drones. Granted, schools are fighting back and trying to create a space for practical, relevant projects, but they’re fighting against a growing sea of constraints in terms of standards, time, and available resources.

That’s a problem.

Class projects are great because they often not only show off what a student has learned about the specific topic being studied, but what the student has carried over from other subjects, from previous years, and even from their outside activities. (Teachers can forget this sometimes in trying to get through everything on their plate.) And in a classroom situation, the project is one very visible means of assessment. Students are typically judged on the content in their project, how they present the project (as in display or associated talk), and how well-done their project appears to be visually.

That’s all well and good, and when done correctly can give a teacher a really good idea of what knowledge the student utilized while working on the project.

But class projects aren’t the only way for students to demonstrate what they know. There is there other fallback – presentations, where a student completes research, develops a paper, diorama, poster, or slide deck. Peer teaching in small groups or one-on-one is a fantastic way to see where students are in their development. Engaging students in open discussions can also be enlightening as it shows off not only how familiar with the material a student is, but how they’re processing and connecting with it.

As we prepare students to take their place in this digitally-enriched world, blogs, social media, and the various creative platforms can also be incorporated into the assessment system. As students write and produce, as they interact and engage with each other and the wider online world, they show off their skills, their understanding of their skills, and their ability to express their knowledge about what they know.

The fact is, we have many tools at our disposal, many of which are really more authentic and more revealing than quizzes and tests. We just have to find the right ways to incorporate them into our teaching processes (especially since our students are already using them as part of their learning process).

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The Role of the Demonstrating Phase

As I said in the previous post, the Demonstration Phase is where you show off the results of your research, brainstorming, play, and work. You know, all those things you’ve been doing in the previous four phases.

Depending on the material you’ve been working with, there are many ways to accomplish this. You can present the actual product that has resulted from your work, be it a new app, a presentation or performance, or a physical object. You can write blog posts, white papers, books, or even social media posts to educate others about what you’ve learned. (Remember, peer teaching is a completely viable way of demonstrating what you know and how well you know it.) You can curate others’ content and media, highlighting your ability to not only understand the material but also recognize outside sources that would be beneficial to others learning and working with the material. You can engage with online and offline groups interested in the same material and become an active mentor or advocate within those communities. The possibilities are endless and constantly changing as avenues available to us for presentation and conversation change.

As you’re thinking about what you want to demonstrate and how you want to demonstrate it, you need to keep these questions in mind (because you knew there would be related questions):

  1. What skills and knowledge do I have to offer?
  2. Who are my colleagues and mentors? (Because this will change what you present and how you present it.)
  3. Who is my audience? (This will also change what and how you present.)

Once you have a handle on the answers to these questions, figuring out how to determine what and how to demonstrate becomes much simpler. Each group you present yourself to is going to want different things from you, and you will need to tailor your presentation appropriately to connect with that group.

Over the next few posts, we’ll look at demonstration both inside and outside the classroom, and I’ll try to have some examples for you to think about. But for now, take that project you’ve been working on all year, and look at it in light of these three questions.

Mentoring Within a Craft

So far, we’ve looked at participating in communities of practice from a competitive and a cooperative point of view. But now, let’s turn our attention to those who decide to mentor within communities of practice, those who share their knowledge and their experience. As was the case with competition and cooperation, there’s a light and a dark side here as well. What? How can that be? Isn’t sharing knowledge and teaching others a good thing? Well…yes and no. It really depends on why the person assumed the mentor role to begin with.

Some people become mentors within a community of practice because they love the craft and want to help bring up the quality of the craft. What actually inspired this series of posts was a Facebook post by costume designer Yaya Han, who started out, and is still very active, in the cosplay community. About halfway down the post, Han addresses the cosplay community as a whole, trying to address negative feelings and opinions splitting the community. She makes the point that each cosplayer is different in their approach and how they prefer to work, and it doesn’t make any of them less of a cosplayer.  She goes on to talk about the need to bring the community skill level up as a whole through positive critique, encouragement, and recognition of personal achievement or growth. She’s spot on. Han was one of the cosplayers followed in Heroes of Cosplay (which strangely enough is not how I came to learn about the post), and you could see how she lives her own words through encouraging fellow cosplayers, and being willing to be a supportive, nondestructive ear when a fellow cosplayer wants to bounce ideas off her. If the show portrayed her accurately, she comes across as a bit of a mother hen, making sure her little chicks are all fine, and becoming concerned when one of them clearly isn’t. She tries to create a environment where other cosplayers can safely grow and foster their own skills and interests.

Others become mentors and teachers because they see Teacher as the Expert in the room, the voice of Authority. (Yes, those words deliberately capitalized.) We’ve all met at least one of these over the course of our schooling – someone who went into the teaching profession because they want to be needed in a way they never were before they stepped into the teacher role, and still aren’t outside of their teaching role. They’re the ones who clearly didn’t go into teaching because they love sharing knowledge or helping others develop their skills. Their self-esteem is just too low for that, and it shows in their teaching. These are the mentors who can tell you all about this one awesome project they did several years ago (which may or may not relate to the craft being practiced at the moment), but haven’t tried to do anything recently, generally have outdated knowledge and connections, and can’t demonstrate or explain to save their little souls. It’s a very destructive environment for the students, potentially driving out those who don’t realize they could just shift to a different mentor.

For those who do assume a mentoring mantle as part of their practice (or who are considering it), becoming a mentor within a community of practice is worthwhile…if you do it correctly and for the right reasons. Becoming known as a mentor is one clear way to establish a reputation because you are constantly exhibiting your knowledge and skills as you’re helping others learn. People can see what you know and how you present it, and they’ll know in the future why you’re worth turning to for help. But because you’re in contact with the newcomers, you get to learn from the experiences they bring with them, broadening your own knowledge base and allowing you to become familiar with what each newcomer brings to the craft. And because you have this reputation for being knowledgeable and skilled, you get to know other people across the community, which puts you in a great position. You can connect people at various levels of the community when certain knowledge and skills are needed, and you know who to approach when you’re building your own team…two abilities that add to your reputation.

Mentoring is fun and rewarding, a great role for anyone who loves to learn and play. But if you go into it for the wrong reasons, you’re doing a lot more harm than good.

Cooperation Within a Community of Practice

The other day, we looked at the light and dark sides of competitive play. Today, we do the same for cooperative play. Because it’s “cooperative” in nature, it’s hard to believe that there’s a dark side to it. But as you will see, not only does it have that dark side, but the majority of us have probably experienced it at least once in our youth.

In the previous post, I said that we have become a competitive society, obsessed with rankings and metrics and being the best. Which is true. But at the same time we’re being driven to be the top dog, we’re being compelled to be a more cooperative society. Just look at the obsession with team projects in classrooms and skills competition-based reality shows. While it’s fueled by the understanding that work beyond the classroom is often completed by teams, I think we’re slowly understanding that teams whose members represent different strengths (the craft specialization mindset found in earlier cultures and cultures considered to be more “primitive”) are capable of achieving more and innovating more than a single individual or level teams. Sadly, we haven’t yet wrapped our education system’s mind around the fact that craft specialization is the opposite of docile clones. Such is the way of progress…

In a team where cooperation is practiced, the skill level averages out. So, it benefits the person building the team to seek out those who are as good or better than they are at a skill, something that becomes easier in a culture where craft specialization is practiced. In a society where the education system turns out young people at a theoretically uniform knowledge level, where a false sense of self-esteem has been developed by the participation ribbon, problems arise. Those who think they have the skills necessary to contribute to the team but don’t (or worse, have the skills but think they don’t) will hide behind the rest of the team so their weakness won’t be found out, effectively leaving their share of the workload to their teammates. We see this all the time in class projects, the child unable to contribute because of weaker or nonexistent skills and not wanting to be called out on it. But it becomes clear when other children in the class start doing whatever they can to not be on a team with that child.

When that weak link is the team leader, the results can be disastrous depending on how willing the team is to cover up for the leader. A leader lacking in the skills they need to have but don’t  can lead to a project with no direction or where they’ve spent the entire time taking out their low self-esteem on the team, demoralizing the group until no work is possible.

Okay, so…that’s the dark side. A lack of knowledge, coupled with low self-esteem or Impostor Syndrome. It’s not pretty…or productive.

On the light side, strong teams are made up of people with a range of talents and skill levels (because a team made up of a uniform group of people is really a waste of manpower when you think about it). Someone looking to put together a team for a project can look at what s/he brings to the project, what the skill gaps are, and then find people who fill in those gaps. People with overlapping skill sets can be balanced by being at different levels. A well-constructed team has the benefit of creating opportunities for peer teaching, for those who are knowledgeable in one field to educate their teammates on skills and team-relevant issues related to their field, meaning that once a team parts ways, each member who interacted with other members of the team comes away with a greater understanding of how their work fits in with other disciplines, allowing them to build stronger teams in the future because they know more about what to look for.

I mentioned in the other post that I enjoy watching skill-based competition reality shows because they often do a good job of showing off the strengths and weaknesses of competition. I also enjoy watching team dynamics and performance in these shows. This past spring, I had a blast watching Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge, because the fabricators came from such different backgrounds and experiences and were able to share their knowledge with each other, both in teams and when working separately. There wasn’t a whole lot of voiced concern that someone was training another competitor to beat them; they were simply helping a fellow fabricator out, pulling somebody up to make sure they all turned out the best puppets they could.

Another great show for watching this type of cooperative competition, although it really doesn’t fit the mold of the competition-based reality show, is Heroes of Cosplay (which I think just wrapped up its summer season). I’ll get more into this next time, but the show does a really good job of showing how a group of high-level and up-and-coming cosplayers prepare for the con season. Individual cosplayers may work on their own or with another individual cosplayer, and they’ll bounce ideas off each other or help each other troubleshoot. Teams may work individually or together on their costumes (and skits, depending on the con they’re preparing for). This group of costume designers and fabricators (many of whom are either professional or looking to become professional) aren’t afraid to teach other tips and tricks, and many of them aren’t afraid to experiment and then share the results of their experiments with the other cosplayers. In fact, it’s not unusual for one of these experiments to become common use, and everyone knows where the new technique came from. They want the right designer to get credit.

At its best, cooperative play is a learning opportunity for everyone involved. At its worse, it’s a nightmare for those with low self-esteem, Impostor Syndrome, and anyone who has to work with the afflicted people.

Competition Within a Community of Practice

I’ve blogged before about the nature and benefits of competitive and cooperative play, but we all know what I presented were really idealized situations. Within any community of practice, you find both the light and the dark sides of competition and cooperation. We’ll look at both, but we’re going to start with competitive play, because it’s the more obvious of the two.

We have become a very competitive society. We’re obsessed with rankings, with being “the best”, with believing that there is absolutely no one better than us. We will create incredibly obscure domains, just so we can be the best at something. And if we aren’t, it’s because the person we lost to cheated or worked connections or something equally superficial and stupid. We surround ourselves with echo chambers, and shun those who suggest we ourselves are the reason we aren’t the best.

Just for clarification, I’m not talking here about the people who seize on every little opportunity to tear you down and claim they’re being supportive. I’m sure we all have enough of those in our lives. But to those “supportive” voices, I will say this: If you won’t help someone because it risks making them better than you or you feel compelled to sabotage them, it’s a reflection on you. It says you don’t have faith in your own work, and you don’t have faith in yourself. A true practitioner of any craft doesn’t fear competition because s/he sees it as a chance to show off what s/he currently can do, and to learn from the experience.

Anyway, back to our competitive society, which has really kind of become a celebration of mediocrity. For fear that children will get their feelings hurt, we hand out participation awards like lollipops. “You punched out that kid because he got a better score than you. But it’s okay. It’s not your fault that kid is such a  show-off. Here, have a ribbon!” What we’re doing, and have been since at least my childhood, is creating people who don’t take risks, who expect to be applauded for simply existing. They’re unmotivated to do anything, because they’ll get a treat for doing nothing. (Yes, I just compared our society to a bunch of dogs. Which is just unfair, because I like dogs.)

We also have created people who are unable to see not being the best as anything but an attack on their self-worth, rather than provoking the reflection and growth necessary to work harder and do their best. We’ve created a culture of mediocrity, a culture where anyone whose personal delusions aren’t reinforced find it acceptable to turn around and tear down anyone who could potentially outshine them or at the very least, try to drive them out of the competition arena so they’re no longer a threat.

I’ve spent most of my life in one performing art or another, and let me tell you: Those movies and shows you see someone exhibiting typical “mean girl” behavior trying to ruin things for someone else because of their own low self-esteem are not wrong. About a year after I started voice acting, someone convinced me to check out a well-known forum. You could chat with other voice actors, swap tips and tricks, find auditions, create your own projects. Well, the site had been overtaken by a fair number of high school or college-aged fangirls who were convinced they were miles better than their favorite voice actresses, but were tired of getting rejections from smaller producers or being overlooked on YouTube. So, they would create their own project where they would play the character their favorite voice actress played, and then hold auditions to fill the rest of their cast (usually with their own friends). They would then send out rejection letters to those who weren’t cast, often suggesting the person was horrible and should quit voice acting all together, regardless of whether or not it was true. (Strangely, those “well-meaning” rejection letters never came from guys. If anything, when a guy responded it was with an encouraging rejection letter. Something to think about…)

Not all competition situations are filled with girls campaigning to be real-life Plastics. I have become a bit of a reality show junkie. Before you worry too much about my sanity (or what’s left of it), I really enjoy watching shows like Project Runway and American Ninja Warrior. These shows demonstrate elements of healthy competitive behavior within a community of practice. Each participant is there for their own reasons, with their own goals. But they all recognize that they have a shared goal, winning, and that they’re all being put through the same ringer to get there. They’re able to commiserate with each other, encouraging each other to either step up and be good competition or to step off and out of the way. In fact, there are few things more fun than watching Project Runway designers rally around a designer they feel got the short end of the stick, or react to one they feel has been kept over harder working, more talented designers.

Competitive play is an excellent opportunity for those involved in a craft to grow, to share experimental techniques, and to raise the quality of the craft. But it’s also a haven for those with low self-esteem and strong influence to really come in and wreck things, which in turn lowers the quality of the craft.  (Are you noticing a theme with these downsides?)

Welcoming Communities of Practice

While it’s all well and good to practice and develop your skills, sometimes you just need to hang out with other people practicing your same discipline for camaraderie, commiseration, and feedback. I thought it might be helpful this month to share some of the online communities I’m aware of that welcome practitioners of any level. Most of my knowledge centers around the arts that I participate in (or have participated in), so if you know a good, supportive community that supports other skills and disciplines, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Communities focused on writing

Communities focused on image creation (photography, digital art, visual arts)

  • deviantArt (dA actually caters to a wide variety of arts)
  • Flickr
  • I feel like I’m missing another really big one, but I can’t for the life of me remember its name right now.

Communities focused on video and media production

Communities focused on crafting

Communities focused on coding

  • GitHub (Someone told me you can also do technical and instructional writing here, but I haven’t had any luck proving that.)

Competitive Play

As we get older, play often takes on a dualistic nature. Either we’re competing with others, or we’re working with others to achieve a goal. This week, we’re going to look at both – what they are, and how they can benefit learners.

Let’s start with the often demonized competitive play. Even among children, who are still engaging in play to explore and to learn, “competitive play” is practically dirty language. We’ve built a culture in recent decades where we are obsessed with who is the best at something. We’ve boiled efforts and activities down to mere metrics that are supposed to make it inarguably clear who is the “best” at something. And then we put a lot of pressure on those competing (including on ourselves if we are competing) to achieve the best metrics or to game the system until we have reached those metrics. We’ll figure out what least amount of work and effort will get us the right metrics, and we’ll treat those we’re competing with as if we’re so much better than them.

And then we insist that no matter how hard you work, everyone is just as good and the same. Goodness forbid we hurt the feelings of those who didn’t put in the effort or whose talents lie elsewhere. It’s insane.

Under those conditions, it’s completely understandable that competitive play would get such a bad rap. We only have certain facts about competitive play right. In competitive play, an individual or team typically works toward a goal that other individuals or teams are also working toward. The goal is always quantitative. Everyone is trying to come in first, or gather the most, or complete a task fastest. Something that can be determined through metrics.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Competitive play actually offers interesting opportunities to a learner. On a personal level, competitive play helps the learner develop goal setting skills and intrinsic motivation. The learner has to plan out a strategy for learning the skills and techniques necessary to do their best in the competition, and then the reflection skills necessary to review their performance and alter the strategy to help them reach their goal in the next competition. The learner also has to develop intrinsic motivation. Nothing is ever more motivating in a situation like this, where you’ve studied and practiced and strategized, than your own will to show what you can do. (This is actually one of the benefits of the current ISU scoring system, because it encourages figure skaters to develop a set of programs that plays to their strengths, but at the same time stretches themselves and takes risk.)

On an interpersonal level, competitive play still incorporates strategy and intrinsic motivation, but it also offers other opportunities for the learner. Ideally, the learner will finds a competitor who is near them in terms of level, and will build a relationship with that competitor. This kind of relationship pushes both to continue to pursue mastery, to take risks, ultimately benefiting both learners. (In the right environment, with the right encouragement, this can actually be a supportive, rather than destructive, relationship.) Competitive play is an environment ripe for autodidactic peer teaching moments, because we learn so much from watching others.

Basically, when we don’t remove compassion, friendliness, and grace from competitive situations, they offer a wealth of learning opportunities. And couldn’t we all use a more supportive environment to learn and perform in?

A Quick Summary of Peer Teaching

Another month coming to an end. I hope you guys found something new about peer teaching to chew on. The most important thing to remember when incorporating peer teaching into your learning environment is that humans teach each other by nature, and so peer teaching can take place anywhere.

Bringing peer teaching into the classroom and extracurricular activities gives the teacher more options in classroom management and assessment methods. It also gives students stronger communication and leadership skills, which they’ll carry with them beyond their school years. More importantly, it will help them develop an authentic sense of self, of who they are and what they know.

Beyond school, incorporating peer teaching practices makes a community of practice stronger and gives independent practitioners a way to network with others interested in their skills and interests. It brings learner and teacher together in ways that allow for more collaboration without worrying about who has the power in the relationship, because that relationship can change as the topic or skill changes.

Next month, we’re headed back into the personal learning environment to look more closely at the second phase: Recording. But always feel free to leave me a comment and let me know how you’re using peer teaching in your own teaching practice.

Peer Teaching as Assessment

This has been folded in to nearly every single other peer teaching post, but given how driven we’ve become by quantifiable assessment it deserved to have its own post.

The short response to this is, “Peer teaching is not quantifiable.” It’s not, but it is can be assessed qualitatively, and this is a good thing. It allows the teacher (or the person assessing) to determine where the student is in terms of which concepts have been learned and how well they’ve mastered the concepts. While peer teaching can happen outside the classroom, the peer teaching that happens inside the classroom rarely occurs in a bubble.

Let’s talk for a minute about the peer teaching that happens outside the classroom in service of what’s going on inside the classroom. It’s a long-standing tradition for struggling students who don’t feel comfortable asking the teacher or a tutor for help to approach a student they know understands the class for help. So, it may not be visible, but its impact is. I don’t advise asking the struggling student who they got help from; but an observant teacher will usually be able to determine it. (The teacher, observing a struggling student not asking for help, can also ask a student with a stronger grasp to step in and help the student.) The point here is that there are usually clues to suggest who the peer teacher is, and that allows the teacher to tacitly assess that student’s knowledge and application skills.

To assess students through peer teaching, you don’t even need to have the students directly engage in peer teaching. You can learn a lot about what the student understands and how well by watching how s/he organizes material related to the concept. The newbie doesn’t know yet what’s important or how ideas relate to each other, and so s/he saves everything in a manner that often has little more than a surface organization structure to it. The expert (or more advanced student), on the other hand, has learned what’s pertinent (or how to sniff out the important information) and organizes it in a relational manner that allows for better access and retrieval.

This is where having students curate their learning journeys is helpful because you can see what they save and how they save it, and this gives you a pretty clear picture of where they are in their learning journeys. (There are exceptions to this. I was a cataloger/archivist-in-training from a young age, and as a result would not invite a teacher to judge me based on my collection of information. My organization of it? Sure. But not the mass of information I had stored at any given point in time. Just a word to the wise on this one. Although…I can see where you might be able to distinguish between the inexperienced, the packrat, and the completionist here.)

In the fight to make the long mythical authentic assessment a reality, peer teaching offers a lot of potential as a real and diverse set of tools to determine where students are in their learning.

Peer Teaching and the PLN

By definition, the personal learning environment is a solitary practice. It’s your learning practice. But the last stage of a PLE is public: You are demonstrating what you’ve been learning and how you’ve been applying it. You may choose to make parts of earlier stages public by sharing your studies as you are working, or you may just keep it to yourself.

But when you do share your learning journey, you are engaging in a peer teaching behavior. You’re sharing what you’re learning and how you’re doing it to anyone who happens to stop by. When you put your own journey on display, you’re providing evidence of your growing expertise, and others learn about what you’re interested in and what you’re experienced in…and then you become a node of information.

That’s how personal learning networks and communities of practice come about. People identify others who are learning concepts similar to theirs and connect to share knowledge. People identify others who are ahead of them in a discipline, and reach out to them for an apprenticeship-like arrangement to improve their own knowledge on a topic. Or, they may identify people who have completely different skill sets, and connect with them to benefit from the knowledge of that diverse skill set.

These networks and communities allow for craft specialization as each member of the group focuses on the skills they are most interested in, and looks to other nodes for the information they need.